He sits confidently behind his mahogany desk that sunny May morning. His office is enveloped in quietness which is occasionally interrupted by the gentle cool air oozing from the air conditioner on the wall. Lincoln Mali is head, personal and business banking, West Africa at Standard Bank. His role at Standard Bank, the parent company of Stanbic IBTC, includes providing leadership to his team in the area of personal and business banking in West Africa. Recently, under his leadership, the bank launched Sharia-compliant banking in other African markets like Tanzania and Ghana. Now, he is spear heading the same initiative in Nigeria.
“Our view is that each market is unique,” he tells me. “We are trying to make sure that we use the uniqueness of Nigeria, because even within Nigeria, each region is unique; we are trying to make sure we use that. Some of the experience we gained from Tanzania and from other markets is relevant, but we try and always bring it back to what works in Nigeria, what works in this region and use it in line with what the Central Bank has approved and what is in line with our board’s decision.”
Recently, he delivered a lecture on non-interest banking and Islamic Finance at the Ado Bayero University, Kano with a focus on leadership in business and academia part of the bank’s core values. “The presentation was a precursor to the Islamic Banking conference that we sponsor, which is being held in Bayero University in partnership with Standard Bank. One of the things I talked about was the importance of us as a business to be involved in financial inclusion; to be sure that as many Nigerians as possible are banked. The second was to make sure that we offer the broadest range of financial services to all Nigerians, and that is the commitment that was given. In Standard Bank are committed to making sure that Islamic Banking actually succeeds in Nigeria and grows from strength to strength.”
With Nigeria’s muslim population estimated at half of the country’s 160 million people, bringing to over 200 million Muslims when the West African sub-region is included, one would have expected that non-interest banking, which was introduced in Nigeria, a couple of years ago would have gained significant traction, but that does not appear to be the case. But Mali says the slow uptake of non-interest banking in the country has to do first, with getting things right.
“I think what is important is that we make sure that we do things right. The Central Bank did the right thing by laying down very clear ground rules, very clear regulatory standards and very clear criteria for approving any bank to do Islamic Banking or non-interest banking. When the regulator did that, it allowed banks to then apply for getting the license. And with God’s help, we are one of the banks, the first bank to get the license.”
He explains further: “Getting the license was the first step; then you have to make sure that internally we have all the right processes in place. We have to setup the right structure to supervise in line with Islamic banking; you have to make sure that the products are approved by your board and then approved by the Central Bank. After that, we have then to consult religious leaders and other stakeholders in the Muslim community to give them a sense of what it is that we do. Only then do you start to get to market or promote the product. Yes, it has taken time but I think it’s the right thing because now more and more people know about it. As more and more people know about it, it then has a pull effect because people are saying this is something I want to do, it is in accord with my values, in accord with my faith and I trust that it is the right thing. It will grow and I think the setup process is the right ones.”
Part of Stanbic IBTC’s efforts in creating awareness about the non-interest banking in Nigeria he says the bank is spending a lot of time with important scholars.
“We are spending a lot of time with Universities; for example, the University in Katsina (the Katsina Muslim University) and the University named after the former President, Yar Adua University in Katsina, Bayero University, and Crescent University. These are universities that we are starting to work with. We are also spending time with some of the religious institutions and other foundations to give them a sense about non-interest banking and then obviously in our branches already, we are starting to promote the product.”
Mali adds that in all his travels to Bauchi, Jos, Kano, Katsina, Zaria, Abuja and so on, he has been promoting non-interest banking, even here in Lagos.
“We are starting to create that awareness so that people understand what it is all about. What people miss a lot about Islamic Banking is that there are fundamental principles and values associated with Islamic Banking. If those principles and values are not there and if those structures are not there, you can’t call it Islamic Banking. We want to do it right and we will promote it based on Standard Bank’s own integrity ethics, because in Standard Bank we wouldn’t do something that is not ethically right or values-based. We have to get the promotion right. I am happy with the progress we have made so far.”
According to Mali, one of the key objectives in launching non-interest banking in Nigeria is to enhance financial inclusion in a country where about 70 percent of the population lack access to regular banking services and also to diversify the economy by developing alternative financial services. And he believes non-interest banking has helped in some ways to bridge the gap.
“It has in the sense that there are people who hitherto were unbanked because they didn’t feel that conventional banking is there for them. Those people are now seeing an alternative in non-interest banking. But as you can well imagine, the gap is too huge, it’s still going to take time and the more awareness, the more people that take it and the more people that get involved, then financial inclusion will improve. I have known how it can move people into the financial environment and allow them to be part of a broader economy. That’s something that I am quite passionate about.”
Sometime in June 2011 the Central Bank of Nigeria expressed the desire to make Nigeria a hub for Sharia-compliant finance in Africa, competing with Senegal, Egypt and South Africa to gain a huge chunk of the $1 trillion Islamic finance industry. More than three years after, Mali says Nigeria is not close to this goal yet.
“No, we are not close. There is still a lot of work to be done. And I think the most important thing for us is, let’s get Nigeria right in terms of non-interest banking and the rest will follow. Nigeria is such a significant country that it is inevitable what it will become but we have got to make sure that we’ve done everything right in order for that to happen.”
Lastly, I could not help but ask him: is non-interest banking also for non-muslims? “Yes, he tells me promptly, “although there are term differences. If you call something Islamic Banking, then yes indeed, it’s focused on people of the Islamic faith. But non-interest banking is a general term where Muslims will find it appealing because of the fact that it deals with the issue of interest, which in Islam is forbidden; because it’s not allowed to charge interest .But there are other faiths or religions who also want non-interest banking. We are working now with Catholic churches who want to work with us on non-interest banking. In that sense, it will incorporate people from other faiths. That is why we talk more of non-interest banking, because when we say non-interest banking, then it is somebody who then says that this suits my faith, my values or my religion. If it does, then somebody will do it. When sometimes you say Islamic Banking, it then becomes a challenge. If somebody doesn’t think that he fully subscribes to Islam, then such a person will say – well, I opt out. But when you say non-interest banking, then such a person will say – I think it’s all the things that I want. Catholics are starting to also want to use our non-interest banking solutions.”